Jan 312013

My friend Eric sent me an e-mail message the other day inquiring about traveling with photography gear; specifically by air with a 600mm lens and tripod. He wanted to know if I checked anything or carried it all on board. Apparently Eric is planning a trip and, like so many of us, isstrugglingwith the logistics of traveling with photography gear; getting it through security, onto the plane, and to his final destination in working order without herniating a disk or making a substantial financial contribution to the TSA. The simple answer is I never check lenses or camera bodies (I don’t trust the TSA as I’m pretty sure one of their bandits stole a Leatherman multi-tool right out of my suit case) – but I almost always pack my tripod in checked baggage. For the record, I’ve never had a problem with a tripod not getting to my destination – tripods can survive the baggage handlers and are probably not worth much at the local pawn and of little personal value to the the average TSA goon- apparently they prefer cameras and electronic gadgets anyway.

Eric’s question got me thinking about my most recent photo shoot that required air travel (Bosque del Apache) and my next one in February (birding on the west coast of Florida). I’ve never learned to travel light when it comes to camera bodies and lenses – especially lenses. As a wildlife and landscape photographer, myarsenalof lenses range from 16mm to 600mm and includes 16-35mm, 24mm tilt-shift, 24-105mm, 70-200mm, 400mm, and 600mm. Each has its purpose and to leave one or more at home makes me feel kinda naked. But for the Bosque shoot, in an effort to minimize the size and weight of my second carry-on (the first was the 600mm) I decided not to take the 16-35mm and 70-200mm – BIG MISTAKE. I didn’t miss the 16-35mm too much although it would have been nice for a couple of spectacular sunrises and geese blast-offs. But not having the 70-200mm caused me to miss some potentially great shots which left me with a miserable feeling.

So the 70-200mm definitelygoes to Florida – it is a stellar lens and I’ve learned my lesson. However, this is a bird shoot and landscape opportunities will be few so I will probably leave the 16-35mm and the 24mm tilt-shift behind just to save a little space and weight. However, getting two bodies and the big glass to Sarasota will still be a challenge. And that brings me to the topic of camera bags and cases. I am obsessive with bags. I’ve gone through more bags than I can count in search of the best combination of size, weight, protection, and comfort. To answer the question of which bag(s) I should use for a particular trip, there are always two basic considerations; 1) the best bag to get through the airports and 2) the best bag once I’m there. Frequently, the answer is different for each question. It is always a compromise and frequently a dilemma. I’m still looking for the perfect combination but in the mean time here is my current bag line up:

My camera bag obsession

Left to right:

      1. Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW: This is my primary back pack for the 600mm lensEXCEPTtravellingby air. It is two inches taller than the max length allowed by many airlines. However, it is very sturdy and comfortable when carrying a big heavy lens for long periods of time. Version II (link) is the latest iteration and is just a bit shorter and meets airline standards (I think).

      2. Lowepro Fastpack 250: This is the back pack I carry when I need to go small or as a second carry-on. It fits easily under a airline seat and holds 5D Mark II, EF400mm f/5.6L, EF 24-105mm, laptop and a bunch of accessories.

      3. Tenba Shootout Backpack Medium: This is my day-to-day workhorse camera backpack. I’ve taken it from Alaska to Costa Rica and from Yosemite to Acadia. It has served me well since 2008. It easily holds the 5D MKII, EF400mm f/5.6L, EF70-200mm f/2.8L, EF16-35mm f/3.5L, EF24-105mm f/4.0L, and TS-E24mm plus room left over for accessories. It even has a zippered side slot for a small laptop. It is very sturdy and comfortable, even fully loaded.

      4. Lowepro SlingShot 200: This is a small backpack good for the 5D MKII plus the EF24-105mm and EF16-35mm and a few accessories. It is a good “walking around” backpack for street photography or family events.

      5. Kinesis L521 Polycore Long Lens Case 500: This is the case I use for the EF600mm f/4.0L when traveling by plane. It meets almost all domestic airline size limits for carry on baggage. It is not as sturdy nor as comfortable as the Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW but I’ve never had a flight attendant question its size.

      6. Samsonite POS: I didn’t actually buy this one; I came as a promo with something else I bought years ago. The only thing it is good for is to be packed inside checked luggage loaded with filters, cables, and accessories.

      7. ThinkTank Airport Security v2.0: This is the big kahuna. It weights 12.5 lbs empty, but at least it is a roller bag (it also has shoulder straps that turn it into a backpack but I’ve never used it this way). It will hold the EF600mm f/4.0L (body detached) and another lens or two. It is great for running through airport terminals but useless in the backwoods. I’ll use it when the destination requires NO significant hiking and I can leave the bag in the car while shooting.

Traveling with Photography Gear – The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this, first priority to traveling with photography gear is getting there witheverythingintact. If you can’t successfully negotiate the airport, your photo shoot will not be much fun or productive. The second priority is understanding your shoot, in advance, so you have what you need to get your shot. But that is not always easy to determine, especially on your first visit to a particular location. Which reminds me of my first hike up the mountain to shoot Delicate Arch at Arches National Park with about 25lbs of gear and using only about 5 lbs of it once I got there. Despite that nasty experience, I still tend to over pack when it comes to lenses – because I’m surely not going back down the mountain to get a lens left in the car



Anyway FWIW, here is my typical strategy for traveling with photography gear:

Checked Bags:Carry-on Bags: Tripod and head(s) Lenses Leatherman multi-tool Camera bodies Hex-key set Extra batteries Filters SPOT emergency beacon Flash and flash bracket Laptop/cables Insect repellant External hard drive Sun screen CF cards CF card reader Head lamp Flash light Lens/sensor cleaning kit

That’s how I get to where I’m going. So how do you do it; how do you get your stuff where you’re going? What bags do you use? What tricks have you learned? I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

Frank Comisar

Frank Comisar

Frank Comisar is a nature photographer who loves to help others make beautiful photographs. His photography interests are varied and range from landscapes to wildlife. He shoots landscapes, wildlife, and nature for the purpose of capturing a moment in time that when revisited, portrays the natural beauty of the places visited and the creatures that live there. His goal is to not merely provide a visual and technical documentation of the scene in front of the lens. Rather, it is to render the scene in an artistic and creative way that not only provides context to the image, but also captures the feeling and essence of the moment.

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James Hamilton Bird
I have used many different bags over the last 40 years from the rather hard box type in the 60's to pig skin fitted one made by Hasselblad. As new products and fashions dictated more protection I felt it worth a try but one thing whateever I have always kept my gear in plastic bags covered. Today I have a Hama Miami 200 trolley bag just £75 new online now available from Germany forget £300 plus.OK. you pay for what you get. My bag Airline accepted size has a small front pouch for the rain cover and a book to… Read more »
Sharon Norman
Frank, I also have the ThinkTank Airport Security V 2.0 and had nothing but trouble when flying on regional jets, even though customer service assured it would be no problem. I had to remove all of my lenses and put them in a plastic bag the stewardess provided, including my Nikon 500mm. They then put my case in the cargo hold of the plane and I was able to pick it up immediately upon disembarking the flight. Once I arrived at Bosque I was able to leave the case in the SUV, but as you stated, this is not for… Read more »

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